Review: ‘The Sixth Extinction’ by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryThe Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Consider the Neanderthal.

According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction,” they had many similarities with modern humans. They buried their dead. They wore clothing and lived in built shelters. They were hairless in the way humans are. They cared for one another.

And we hastened their extinction.

We’ve done that a lot, we members of H. sapiens. Sometimes we did so directly, by hunting various animals and birds into extinction. Other times our influence has been indirect, particularly in the modern industrial age, when our migration patterns, use of fossil fuels and general disregard for the natural environment has erased many species. It’s no wonder that many geologists now think of this era as the Anthropocene, named after the impact we humans have had.

But the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. It has been here far, far longer than we have – and will be here far, far longer than we will be. In those billions of years, it’s seen five major extinction events. One of them, believed to be a meteor strike, killed off the dinosaurs. The only difference in what may be an eventual sixth extinction is that we seem to be doing it to ourselves, whether through the slow buildup of atmospheric change or – though it’s hopefully avoidable – itchy nuclear trigger fingers.

I picked up “The Sixth Extinction” because I was an admirer of Kolbert’s New Yorker articles on the subject. And yet the book wasn’t as downbeat as I thought. At worst it takes the geologist’s long view – that we’re here for a moment, and even if we make the best of things, this planet has seen many changes and we’re almost certainly going to be one of them.

And at best it’s actually hopeful. Sure, we’ve caused a lot of damage, but at least we’re aware of it and could adapt – or even change its progress.

Still, we’ve done a bang-up job in screwing things up. For all the talk of climate change in terms of air temperature, perhaps the most powerful chapters are about the oceans. The pH of our vast waters is changing, and that’s meant the decay of coral reefs and the disappearance of sea creatures dependent on just the right chemical content. So much of the food chain is dependent on calcifiers, species that build the structures other species are dependent on. With the growing acidification of the seas, that ability is being literally eaten away.

“Lab experiments have indicated that calcifiers will be particularly hard-hit by falling ocean pH, and the list of the disappeared at Castello Aragonese confirms this,” Kolbert writes. “In the pH 7.8 zone, three-quarters of the missing species are calcifiers.”

Forget about the proverbial canary in the coal mine; try the calcifiers in the sea.

At least “The Sixth Extinction,” like Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us,” is an engaging read. Kolbert is a fine writer and terrific guide to planetary decline, mixing in geology, paleontology, chemistry and good old travel writing in equal measure. I learned something on almost every page.

I was particularly struck by her description of why the Neanderthals no longer exist: Among other things, they apparently lacked a curiosity gene that humans have. While Homo sapiens came out of Africa and traveled the world – sailing uncharted seas and moving into unknown lands – Neanderthals, it seems, didn’t leave their home places. Humans who encountered them probably mated with them, in fact, and carried those genes on our travels. Genetics has shown that most of us are between 1 and 4 percent Neanderthal.

So, though pure Neanderthals are gone from this planet, they’re not gone from our DNA. We’re just a bunch of mutts, we humans. Take that, racists!

Humans still have an uphill battle in maintaining the Earth. Even if we can stop our profligate ways, there’s still the risk of a hit of space debris, an explosion from the planet’s interior, or the literal fallout from a nuclear war. Still, if anything sentient survives into the next millennia, I hope a copy of “The Sixth Extinction” is around to be read by them. And I hope they learn as much as I did.

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Review: ‘Endurance’ by Scott Kelly

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of DiscoveryEndurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always wanted to go into space, and I know I never will.

I know I never will because I’m 52 years old, and the world of “2001: A Space Odyssey” I wanted to be a part of – a world of Pan Am shuttles and space station Hiltons and, obviously, regular use of both by mere Earthlings – is decades away, if it ever happens at all. I will either be too old or too dead to try them, and thus will be spending the remainder of my life gravitationally attached to this oblate spheroid.

Fortunately, if space must remain the domain of well-trained astronauts, we have people like Scott Kelly to tell us what it’s like.

Kelly freely admits he was a ne’er-do-well student probably ticketed for a middling life until he stumbled on Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” early in college. (“The Right Stuff” is probably my favorite Wolfe book, too, and considering that I love most of what Wolfe has written, that’s saying something.) Suddenly he had a purpose. He wanted to be an astronaut. However, that meant mastering math, physics and engineering, excelling in the military, becoming an accomplished jet pilot and being selected by NASA.

As he writes, often humbly, in his memoir “Endurance,” he pulled it off.

“Endurance” alternates between chapters describing Kelly’s “Year in Space” – 2015-16, when he set the record for consecutive days by an American on board the space station – and his push to get there. He seldom spares himself, writing matter-of-factly about his initial lack of discipline, his occasional foolishness as a Navy pilot (in one incident, he went overboard after drinking too much and could easily have died) and the divorce from his first wife, who – at least as of the book’s writing – barely speaks to him.

However, what makes his memoir so gripping, and what raises it above the level of the overcoming-adversity book it could have been, is his sense of wonder. Inside Kelly is still that college kid reading “The Right Stuff” and pondering the heavens. It’s when he’s describing those moments – staring at the Earth from the cupola (the space station’s viewing room) or, during spacewalks, noting the fragility of the tether connecting him to the station – that the book almost brought me to tears. You can feel Kelly’s awe. How I’ve stared at the night sky and felt that feeling myself, wishing to see it from the other side.

Which is not to say astronaut life is all zero-G dances to the “Blue Danube.”

There’s the impact of zero-G, for one. What seems so natural in “2001” (or “Star Wars,” or any movie set in space) is actually quite unnatural for human beings. Kelly gets headaches as his brain tries to figure out which end is up. A crewmate spends several days throwing up. Their bodies start wasting away, since there’s less need for the muscle and bone that keeps us upright and ambulatory. Makes you wonder how easy it would be for Dr. Heywood Broun, or his Pan Am flight attendants.

Then there’s the space station itself: a remarkable creation, but one that seems put together with chewing gum and baling wire. The station struggles to keep up with its resident humans’ oxygen needs – carbon dioxide builds up all too easily – and the toilet craps out (sorry) a couple times, which means that it has to be fixed … while its parts threaten to float away. Frankly, it’s amazing the space station has held up as well as it has, given the lack of passion and funding for space exploration among national governments.

Finally, Kelly acknowledges how difficult it is to be hundreds of miles away from home – not just in another part of the world, but literally above it. He can’t step outside for a breather; he can’t go shopping or drinking or simply grab a change of scene. In a moving section near the end of “Endurance,” he talks about what he’s missed:

I miss cooking. I miss chopping fresh food, the smell vegetables give up when you first slice into them. … I miss grocery stores, the shelves of bright colors and the glossy tile floors and the strangers walking the aisles. … I miss rooms. I miss doors and door frames and the creak of wood floorboards when people walk around in old buildings. … I miss the feeling of resting after opposing gravity all day. … I miss showers. I miss running water in all its forms: washing my face, washing my hands.

Amazing what you take for granted, simply existing on this planet.

“Endurance” isn’t perfect. The writing (with Margaret Lazarus Dean) can be workmanlike – not dull, but not at the level of its most heartfelt sections. I would have liked more information on Kelly’s crewmates, particularly the Russians — though, to his credit, he offers up the occasional tart comparison. (If NASA is by-the-book to the point of absurdity, the Russians are sometimes casual to the point of imprudence.)

I’m glad Kelly was blunt about the stresses of space, though. The training alone would eliminate me, all that drownproofing and roughing it in the Russian woods. And having nearly passed out after trying an “anti-gravity workout,” in which you do pushups and situps while hanging from the ceiling, I can’t imagine how I’d survive life in the space station … never mind the trip to and from the place. (Kelly describes the ride back in a Soyuz capsule as “going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, while on fire.” And he loves it.)

So I’d never make it in space unless Pan Am, or whoever, made it reasonably comfortable. But Kelly has made it in space, and has done so with an open-mindedness that makes “Endeavor” a welcome, and surprisingly deep, addition to space-oriented literature – including “The Right Stuff.”

In a classy move, Kelly called Tom Wolfe from space late in his journey to thank him for the inspiration. In turn, I’d like to thank Kelly for taking me along on his trip. Godspeed.

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Review: ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can see why “A Wrinkle in Time” is beloved.

The hero of Madeleine L’Engle’s award-winning novel is a girl on the edge of adulthood, still unusual in fantasy and science fiction and particularly unlikely back in 1962, when the book was published. The book is imaginative, whether using tesseracts as a means of transport or through the invention of three ancients of the universe, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. And its invocation of love as the cosmos’ essential ingredient remains resonant.

I didn’t much like it.

I admired it, certainly, for all the reasons I listed. But as a story I found it a slog. In short, Meg Murry’s father, a scientist, has disappeared. Her brother, Charles Wallace, seems to be in tune with the universe and suspects he’s vanished to another point in space-time. A boy from school, Calvin, joins their group, and thanks to the three ancients, they’re off to find Prof. Murry. They learn that there’s a dark IT (I found it hard to read that without thinking of Stephen King’s clown) that clouds certain planets, and also that Prof. Murry is being held captive on a planet of order-following, brain-dampening creatures.

Sounds fascinating, right? But the characters, particularly Meg and her boyfriend-to-be, Calvin, are two-dimensional (perhaps appropriate given their dimension-hopping), with Meg pouty and Calvin Boy Scout-polite. (He addresses Meg’s father as “sir,” not even “Professor Murry.”) The book travels from point to point without much point, besides offering tidbits of L’Engle’s wonderful imagination. The end comes so abruptly I wondered if L’Engle had to rush “Wrinkle” to her publisher.

And the dialogue. Ugh.

I winced every time the story returned to Meg, Calvin and Meg’s brother Charles Wallace – which was pretty much every page. While the Mrses were grandly entertaining – I particularly enjoyed Mrs Who’s endless quotations — the children spoke like they’d just emerged from a Dick and Jane book or a bad movie script. I don’t think children talked like this in 1912, never mind 1962 (perhaps I should get my copy of “Penrod” off the shelf to see), and their words called attention to their flat characterizations.

Some random examples:

“Sure, we all know that. And he’s supposed to have left your mother and gone off with some dame,” Calvin says early on. “Some dame”? Had Calvin been spending time with James Cagney?

“No!” Meg shouts later in the novel. “I know our world isn’t perfect, Charles, but it’s better than this. This isn’t the only alternative! It can’t be!” Exclamation point!

Meg seldom “says,” too. She shouts. She cries. She objects. I can hear Elmore Leonard – he of the terse “he said, she said” dialogue – turning in his grave.

OK, that’s not fair. “A Wrinkle in Time” was written for children. But I couldn’t help but think it.

Having not read the book when I was a child, I thought I’d be treated to one of those timeless classics that still read well when you’re all grown up. (Roald Dahl succeeded with his works, but maybe it’s because he has a mean streak the gentle Ms. L’Engle lacks.) Sometimes L’Engle manages to strike the tone of Carrollian whimsy she’s pursuing, and yeah, I assume if you’re a young girl (or young boy, perhaps slightly older than Meg’s brother Charles Wallace), it’s probably remarkable.

But in general, now that I’ve read it, I wonder what all the fuss is about. I can’t say “A Wrinkle in Time” isn’t worth reading, but if I could tesser, I would travel back a few days and devote my attention to something else.

Or maybe find a child and read it, aloud, to them. They wouldn’t even have to call me “sir.”

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Review: ‘Pinpoint’ by Greg Milner

Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our MindsPinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds by Greg Milner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few years ago, I read Greg Milner’s “Perfecting Sound Forever.” That book, about the history of recorded music, was engaging, funny and often enlightening — even as it got bogged down in the techno-speak of computer files in its last chapter or so. I was hoping for the same from “Pinpoint.”

Well, “Pinpoint” was enlightening in places. But it too often wasn’t engaging, and it definitely wasn’t funny.

I don’t know if I should entirely blame Milner. The subtitle promises much but doesn’t quite deliver. Yes, we’re probably too reliant on GPS these days, which means that many people can’t read a map — or they trust the godlike voice of GPS so much they end up driving into lakes. That’s just one chapter, though. And yeah, there’s something about our internal compass that’s gotten lost, thanks to GPS — after all, why bother to memorize star charts or be able to count waves if this digital machine will do it for you? (That’s another chapter — and we’ve been losing knowledge to machines for ages, including being able to recite Homer from memory the way the old Greek griot did himself.)

But perhaps the bigger problem is that this book is both too small — a pop history of GPS and accompanying technology — and too big — trying to take on every aspect of how GPS has changed modern life. So we get how GPS and atomic clocks are pretty much at the heart of every bit of technology we have these days (and woe is us if they fail), as well as capsule histories of a few companies that made mints from the technology, such as Magellan and Garmin. A deeper dive on either side may have made for a better book.

I didn’t dislike “Pinpoint.” Early chapters on navigation and satellites were promising. Milner is a fine writer and he obviously did his research. But the book lacks the passion of “Perfecting Sound,” which means that I wasn’t hurrying back to it when I put it down.

Maybe it would have been better to map out something different.

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Perhaps the saddest passage I’ve read in awhile

$6000 Sex Dolls Turn Fantasy To Reality, Almost
Image from Getty via the Huffington Post.

From “600 Miles in a Coffin-Shaped Bus, Campaigning Against Death Itself”, excerpted from “To Be a Machine,” in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

Author Mark O’Connell is talking to Roen Horn, who’s accompanying transhumanist Zoltan Istvan on a trip across the country. Horn is 28 and hasn’t lived much — he’s the son of a devout Calvinist, though he’s become an atheist — yet he decides he likes the idea of living forever. “I want to have fun forever,” he says.

This is though he currently lives like, in O’Connell’s words, “a medieval monk.” No problem, Horn tells O’Connell, he’ll indulge later.

This leads to the following exchange:

“You know one really cool thing about being alive in the future?” he asked.

“What’s that?”

“Sexbots. … It’s something I’m very much looking forward to.”

He had a particular way of smiling that was half evasion and half challenge. Out of context, you might be tempted to describe it as smug, but the effect was somehow deeply endearing.

“The problem I have with sexbots,” I said, “is why wouldn’t you just have sex with an actual person? I mean, all things being equal.”

He said: “Are you kidding me? A real girl could cheat on you, sleep around. You could get an S.T.D. You could maybe even die.”

“Is that potentially a bit alarmist?”

“No way, man. It happens literally all the time. See, a personal sexbot would never cheat on you, and it would be just like a real girl.”

He said nothing for a time and drank at leisure from his glass of water. He consumed some further forkfuls of salad. He gazed out the window at the parking lot full of trucks, the Interstate beyond, the ever-present vultures hanging in the air.

I said, “Do you mind me asking if you’ve had bad experiences with people cheating on you?”

“I have so far abstained from sex,” he said. “I have never had a girlfriend.”

“You’re saving yourself for the sexbots?”

He nodded slowly, shrewdly raising his eyebrows. You bet he was saving himself for the sexbots.

“Fair enough,” I said, raising my hands in capitulation. “I hope you live that long.”

He said, “I’m pretty sure I will.”

Roen, I wish you well, but you might try a few human beings first — women, men, whatever works for you. They’re not all that bad.



Earth sets another record! Yay us!

Image from

According to some “scientists,” the Earth extended its record for average temperature to a third straight year:

Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016 — trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.

Frankly, I don’t know what they’re talking about. I mean, I live in Atlanta, where we’re enjoying an unseasonably warm few days — but we also had a near snowstorm on our hands two weeks ago! How can there be global warming if it’s (almost) snowing in Atlanta? And I refuse to take their word about the Arctic until I actually see it for myself. I mean, who’s to say that all that iceberg calving and polar bear dying aren’t just … fake news?

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Going to #Mars!

Image from NASA via The Telegraph.

This thrills me:

We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.

I love space exploration. I love astronomy. When I was a kid, I used to pore over old newspapers and magazines announcing the moon landing — newspapers and magazines my father had saved and put in a cabinet. (The only other periodicals he did this for were the ones announcing the Miracle Mets’ victory in the 1969 World Series, a once equally improbable event.) I watched sci-fi TV shows and movies and fantasized that one day I’d have a chance to ride in “2001’s” Pan Am space shuttle. It’s not for nothing that “2001” remains one of my favorite movies, more for its sense of awe and wonder than the cold creepiness of HAL 9000’s determination to knock off the human crew.

I’m probably too old, poor and out of shape to ever take a ride on a space vehicle, but that doesn’t mean I don’t follow launches with the excitement of a child.

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Following #Matthew

Image from NOAA via Weather Underground.

You don’t fuck with a hurricane.

As I write this, Hurricane Matthew is about 45 miles NNE of Cape Canaveral, Florida. After devastating western Haiti and plowing across the northern Bahamas, it’s remained just off the Florida coast for its entire U.S. run, leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Damages and casualties are still to be determined, but the National Weather Service is warning of a huge storm surge. Cape Canaveral has recorded gusts in excess of 100 mph and Matthew remains a Category 3 storm, not expected to weaken until it enters the waters off Georgia.

Hurricanes always give me a pit in my stomach.

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The ‘Schrodinger’s cat of candidates’

Just stumbled on this “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” video that’s making the rounds about the possibility — floated by Donald Trump — that the election may be “rigged.”

Personally, I just love the description of Trump as the “Schrodinger’s cat of candidates” — “both winning and losing at the same time” — because the election isn’t rigged if he wins, but it is if he loses.

Hard to argue with that.